Collier County commissioners approve two rural villages and give thumbs up to town concept

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier County commissioners have approved two new villages on rural land.

On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 in favor the highly controversial projects — and for an adjoining town, at least in concept.

Collier County Commission Chairwoman Penny Taylor came out as the lone dissenter, voting no three times. 

The commissioner described the projects as a "great experiment," of the likes the county has never seen, raising myriad concerns about their impact — from fiscal to environmental.

Commissioner Burt Saunders made the first motion in favor of a roughly 1,000-acre village known as Longwater.

Bill McDaniel, who represents the rural area, seconded. 

In making his motion, Saunders said he supported a village for several reasons, including the guarantee of more compact development — and avoidance of urban sprawl, as the county continues to see in nearby Golden Gate Estates. 

"With the admonition of the county attorney that we are not legally required to build new roads, I think this is a far cry better than if we don't approve this," he said. 

A restored agricultural field within the Rural Land Stewardship Area, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

Roads were one of several discussion points by the board before the long-awaited series of votes took place.

County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow told the board the county isn't required to build or widen any roads for the villages or town, including the proposed Big Cypress Parkway. He said it's strictly a policy decision by the board on whether to spend the money.

"You're not going to jail, commissioners, if you don't build a road," Klatzkow said. 

He pointed out developers have built private roads all over the county.

While Saunders took the lead on the first village, he didn't make any other motions on the contentious projects, saying he wanted to "spread the glory." 

McDaniel stepped in, motioning to approve a second 1,000-acre village, known as Bellmar, and doing the same for the town concept.  Commissioner Andy Solis seconded both times.

By the way:Developer, environmental groups work out compromises over rural villages

Local developer Collier Enterprises plans to build the villages and the accompanying Town of Big Cypress on swaths of land it owns in the eastern stretches of the county. Much of the property is farmland, used for row crops.

The proposed town would support a trio of villages. 

County commissioners narrowly approved the developer's other village, known as Rivergrass, last year. It has faced legal challenges, however, so it's on hold for now.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida loses court fight against rural village Rivergrass

By the way:Residential, commercial projects to follow this summer in SWFL

The vote on Rivergrass was 3-2, with Saunders and Taylor voting against that village in January of last year.

While it might appear that he “made a complete 180" since that vote, Saunders said he supported the two other villages and town concept because Collier Enterprises had agreed to more concessions this time, including the addition of more affordable housing and the promise of greater protections for wildlife, especially the critically endangered Florida panther.

Those concessions weren't enough to change Taylor's mind, however.

In voting against the two villages, the commissioner said: "It does not create economic opportunity and they will increase the demands of our transportation system. And it will also put an unnecessary burden on our taxpayers." 

As for the town proposal, Taylor said it appeared to be an "afterthought." 

"It is not well thought out," she said. "It was not planned in accordance with the cooperation and the goodwill of Collier County and I find it offensible."

The town will require final approval from commissioners down the road once the details are fleshed out. The developer has yet to file a formal application for one.

The projects have sparked controversy primarily because of their location. The to-be-developed property sits in the environmentally sensitive Rural Lands Stewardship Area, or RLSA.

The stewardship area, adopted nearly 20 years ago, encompasses 185,000 acres around Immokalee, east of Golden Gate Estates, with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the south and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to the north.

The voluntary RLSA program allows developers to build higher-density towns and villages on property with lower conservation value in exchange for preserving the most environmentally sensitive land through a credit system.

Otherwise, ranchettes can be built on every 5 acres under the current zoning.

Bellmar and Longwater are both located near the panther refuge.

In a statement after the favorable vote, Collier Enterprises said: "The commission and county staff conducted a lengthy, thorough review that confirmed the villages are consistent with the goals and rules of the RLSA. Both villages will provide homes for working families, including affordable housing, along with local goods and services."

Further, the developer stated the projects will result in the protection of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive lands at no cost to the county’s taxpayers.

The approval represents a win for Collier County, a win for working families, and a win for the environment," Collier Enterprises said.

County commissioners put off a decision on the pair of villages and town plan at its last board meeting on May 25, in large part due to the absence of Commissioner Rick LoCastro.

LoCastro couldn't attend the last hearing because of a family emergency. He had two weeks to catch up on the issues, by viewing the video of the public hearing and reviewing the voluminous backup documents for the multiple agenda items associated with the votes.

"I saw the meeting from start to finish, so I just want to assure everybody I'm fully caught up," the commissioner said before the hearing resumed where it left off a few weeks ago.

Agricultural fields in the western portion of the the Rural Land Stewardship Area, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

LoCastro also shared that he'd met with everyone personally who wanted to talk to him about the projects ahead of the decisive hearing. He thanked his fellow commissioners for delaying their decision, so he could participate in the vote. 

"This is an important decision and I'm here fully briefed and ready to go," he said.

LoCastro listened intently, but didn't raise questions or concerns about the projects during the hearing. He remained unusually quiet.

Other commissioners had questions for staff and for the developer's representatives, including Solis.

Solis asked county staff to pull up a heat map for permit activity out east, which showed a recent surge of single-family permits issued in Golden Gate Estates, where homes are spread farther apart on large lots.

Pointing to all the red dots on the map, each one representing a permit for a new home, the commissioner asked county staff if that's what the RLSA is designed to avoid. 

Mike Bosi, the county's planning and zoning director, didn't hesitate to answer, with a firm yes.

"We've seen quite a lot of growth out there in that community," he said. 

If a vote on the villages had come two weeks ago, with only four commissioners on the dais, some had expected to see it end in a tie. It appears that may have not been the outcome, with Saunders switching sides.

The projects have faced organized opposition from several environmental groups and others, including the Colier County League of Women Voters. They have also been opposed by some rural residents, especially those living in Golden Gate Estates. 

In an email, Patricia Forkan, chairwoman of the League of Women Voters' Environmental Affairs Committee, said the group was disappointed, but not surprised, by Tuesday's outcome.

"The taxpayers and the endangered panthers both lost. Taxpayers will be picking up a huge cost to support all this development in the eastern lands," she said.

Forkan added: "Panthers will be further endangered by dense development in primary panther habitat where none exists today.  A sad outcome for the state's animal."

Likewise, the Conservancy is disappointed.

In a statement, Nicole Johnson, the Conservancy's director of environmental policy, said her group firmly believes its policy team and experts presented a detailed, science-based analysis that supports its position that the proposed villages do not meet the requirements of the law and will cost taxpayers in Collier County millions of dollars.

The developer and its team of experts and county staff argued otherwise.

"As a leading nonprofit dedicated to protecting our land, our water, our wildlife and future, the Conservancy has, and will continue, to advocate for solutions that best balance the needs of our growing community while preserving our natural environment," Johnson wrote.

In a letter to LoCastro last week, Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said the commissioner could "well be the deciding vote," urging him to side against the villages.

"One of the county's Rural Lands Stewardship Area main goals is to direct development away from areas heavily used by wildlife," Schwartz wrote. "These two projects would do just the opposite. They would bring habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation to the very heart of the Florida panther's remaining habitat."

He listed a number of other concerns, from increasing human-wildlife conflicts to creating a tax burden for current residents.

Records show 18 Florida panthers have died in just the first four months of 2021, 13 of them by being hit by a car.

While some environmental groups opposed the projects, several others supported them, arguing they'll do what the RLSA intends by protecting the most environmentally sensitive land, which couldn't happen otherwise.

County reviewers recommended approval of the villages — and the town concept. So did the Planning Commission.

The town proposal still requires a thorough review and analysis by county staffers and the Planning Commission before returning to county commissioners for a final decision in 2022, or later.

Collier Enterprises expects to file a formal application for a town within a year.

Combined, the three villages and accompanying town would preserve 12,300 acres, while allowing a mix of residential and commercial development on about 3,500 acres.

"This is an extensive conservation benefit that would not be possible with the underlying zoning," said Meredith Budd, a regional policy director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, in an email.

That's a big reason for her group's support. 

The federation is thankful that Saunders helped clarify and elevate the developer's commitments for additional environmental benefits as part of his motion and subsequent ones, Budd said.

Those benefits will include more wildlife crossings, as well as bear-proof trash cans and dark sky lighting.

The developer has also agreed to use up more than the required amount of development credits for the projects, thereby reducing the number available for future projects. 

"These elements are critical to both landscape connectivity and reducing human-wildlife conflict in the RLSA," Budd said.

Public comments were closed, having taken hours to get through at the last hearing. 

On all sides, the decisions on the projects are seen as some of the most important ones county commissioners will make for Collier's future.